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Riyaz Kurji

By John Njoroge

Rewinding clock to the second that took his life

There was excitement in the village of Magezi-Tonyeze in Mityana district that Saturday afternoon. The second leg of the KCB Pearl of Africa Rally 2009 was coming that way and there was no missing the fast and furious automobiles as they roared through the village.

On that day, Godfrey Sseruwagi, a 13-year old boy, was torn between helping Wanyama Junior, 27, prepare lunch and waiting for the rally cars expected to pass in front of their home. Godfrey says he ran back and forth from the road as he waited anxiously for the cars.

Far away from Sseruwagi’s village at the starting point in Kiwawu, car Number One driven by Riyaz Kurji and navigator Sayed Kadri was flagged off at 12.45pm. Kurji and Kadri had held a comfortable lead since the first day and the days run would stretch the gap against his rivals. It was to be an easy run for him to victory. The road terrain had been described as easy gravel with soft curves and few obstacles. The road had been levelled the day before with sand to eliminate potholes. Earlier on, Kurji had joked about doing a quick round because his navigator was not well.

James Opoka, television journalist and former rally navigator to Emmanuel Katto, recalls the atmosphere. Riyaz was in a cheerful mood that day. He had clocked good times in the previous runs and had a clear lead. He joked about his navigator being unwell. I will be quick. He has to go to Kampala to take his medicine, he said. We laughed. He said he would take it easy since his shock absorbers were not in perfect condition. He had blown them during the morning section. He mentioned a spot on the track where he thought I would get good pictures of him driving by.

But events turned quickly and tragically when Kurji’s fast moving car reached Sseruwagi’s village. These events will leave an unforgettable mark on motorsport in Uganda.

Sseruwagi recounts the events: I saw the car coming.  Suddenly it was in the air. It hit an anthill and went higher. Then it landed on that tree, he says pointing at a common wild fig tree, mutuba, whose trunk is still scarred at the point the car crashed.

Sseruwagi says everything happened so quickly.

I ran to Wanyama who came and helped pull them out. One of them died. That was Kurji.

Wanyama says he did not see the accident but heard it. I heard a loud thud, he says, Then Godfrey came running screaming that a car had hit the anthill and was in our garden. I rushed to the scene. I could see the driver was badly injured. He was not moving. The other one [Kadri] was moving. People gathered and we pulled him out. The driver moved; he started groaning. I got to the top of the car. Its roof was off. The others pulled and bent the parts of the car that were lodged in his body. I pulled him out from the top.

Kurji was laid in the garden, on the leaves of growing bean plants. He was bleeding profusely and was disfigured. He died moments later. Reports of the accident quickly reached a nearby boda boda motorbike stage opposite the Kiwawu Senior Secondary School turning.

Richard Mukiibi, a boda boda operator and his colleagues recall the events. “We were watching the cars turn up the road. Two men on a bicycle reached us and told us one of the cars had rolled in Magezi-Tonyeze after the school. I immediately rode my motorcycle there; I saw one of the drivers lying on the ground.”

Meanwhile, Reuters Correspondent Justin Dralaze, the first journalist at the scene, says he was about 30 metres from where Kurji’s car crashed when it happened.Two of Mukiibi’s colleagues rode to Kiwawu Police Post and reported the accident while another colleague commonly known as ‘Poliyo’ headed for the starting point. “I went to the starting point and told them a car had rolled. They did not seem to take me seriously,” Poliyo recalls, “Some of them just walked away from me.”

“I had just taken video shots of the car. When it went off the road, I ran to the scene. I thought it was a simple accident but when I got to the scene, I realised it was serious. The car was next to a tree with lots of branches all over; its top had been blown off.”

News of Kurji’s accident continued to spread, but it appears few thought it was serious. Many a time, Riyaz has rolled his rally cars only to emerge from them laughing and dusting himself. Among the rally participants and organisers, Jemmy (James) Whyte was the first to notice the absence of Kurji at the flying finish point in Malwa. He thought it was odd that Zambian rally driver Muna Singh and Emma Katto, who had been driving behind Kurji, had reached the flying finish with no sight of Kurji and no conclusive information. His concern sparked panic.

Many who see the area where Kurji crashed to his death are puzzled.

“That stretch had no potholes, no people, no boda bodas crossing, and no animals; nothing that could have been an obstacle,” said Jack Wavamuno, chairman of the organising committee of the rally, “The accident could have been as a result of Riyaz losing a moment in concentration; anything. Even his co-driver doesn’t know what happened. Besides, you cannot blame it on over-speeding. Motor sport is about speed.”

Kurji was driving a Subaru Impreza N8, one of the best rally cars on the world market today. The Subaru N8 has four flat cylinders with a 16-valve, turbo-charged engine. It is a four-wheel drive vehicle with a five-gear manual transmission that can get from 0-100kph in 5 seconds.

The car was fitted with a roll cage, race harnesses (belts), bucket seats and two fire extinguishers. Kurji and Kadri were both dressed in fire-proof suits and crash helmets. Ideally these provisions are meant to ensure that in the event of an accident, the occupants of the vehicle suffer minimal injury.

In Kurji’s case, things went differently, badly.

According to eyewitnesses, his car got totally disintegrated in the accident. When it veered off the road and flew into the air, it overturned mid-air and its top hit the anthill first and got totally shuttered and ripped off. The upside-down position and the weight of the car from an unusual position exposed the driver to the impact on the anthill. So when the car was further catapulted into the air before landing onto the tree and crashing down, Kurji’s injuries could have been made even worse.

The steel roll cage located in the interior of his car had been guaranteed to withstand impact by Prodrive, the company that serviced the car when he bought it. But it yielded to impact of the anthill inflicting horrific injuries on Kurji.

When Kurji was recovered from the wreckage, according to reports, his helmet was off his head and his neck was twisted.

According to preliminary reports, Kadri’s survival may be attributed to the fact that the greatest impact on the vehicle was on the driver’s side.

Opoka says the manner in which the Subaru was thrown in the air suggests something broke underneath the car. “It looks like something snapped at the bottom of the car. The metal may have dug into the ground and at such high speeds may have sent the car flying in the air. In my experiences and on such a flat surface, this is possible.”

Since the accident, eyewitnesses have said the Federation of Motorsport Clubs Uganda (FMU) did not respond quickly enough. The first people on the scene may have inflicted more injuries on Kurji as they retrieved him from the wreckage. Â

Opoka explains: “Experts in first aid and medics should have been the first to remove Riyaz from the wreckage. The villagers are not experienced in handling injured persons. His spinal cord or neck could have been twisted but not broken. Irresponsible removal could have caused him greater damage.”

Indeed Wanyama, the man who pulled Kurji from the wreckage told this reporter that Kadri told him not to touch Kurji. “The other one waved his hands when we were pulling his friend out. I pulled him from the top,” he said.

In the process of removing him, Wanyama and others could have exposed Kurji’s severed blood vessels causing him to bleed to death. Kurji was also in shock and should have been stabilised while still in the wreckage before he was removed.

But Wavamuno says the whole incident was unfortunate. “Villagers pull out people from vehicle wreckages in this country. It’s not a new thing. Whether you want it or not, when there is an accident, people will pull you out of the wreckage. I don’t know what happened. We are all shocked about what happened,” he said.

Journalist Dralaze, who was among the first people at the scene, says it took the organisers too long to get there. “It took up to 10 minutes before it was realised that Riyaz had crashed and another 40 minutes for an ambulance to reach the crash scene. The police were first to arrive and didn’t do much; no first aid to even Sayed was provided except ‘sorry, sorry’. They only cleared the scene. The organisers concentrated on flagging off the rest of the cars before an ambulance could get to the scene.”

But International Federation of Automobiles (FIA) Chief Safety Delegate to Uganda Hamid Gombe says the standard practice while responding to accidents during rallies is the same worldwide. “Quick response is the primary thing. We first have to evaluate the accident,” he said, “Cars roll all the time. In case of something major, the race is stopped. Emergency vehicles are dispatched to the scene and if need be, air support is called in.” Â

Gombe said FIA’s priority is safety. “We follow worldwide standards. For this rally, we got observers from FIA. They checked the cars for safety measures and insurance. They tested the cars. There is a document that is signed by each and every competitor. We all hang it around our necks. It says ‘Motor sport is a dangerous sport and can be harmful to your life. There are what we call Intervention Cars in all the sections. Riyaz crashed one and a half kilometres from the next intervention car.”

Indeed the organisers, according to information supplied before the rally, had elaborate safety guidelines, provisions, equipment and personnel as required by the FIA International Sporting Code. What is not clear is why they did not swing into action when the accident happened.

Part of the problem appears to be the question of timing.

Apparently, the maximum target times for safety cover on any part of the rally route should have been: sending alert 20 minutes, arrival of safety unit to casualty 35 minutes, arrival of doctor to casualty 50 minutes, and evacuation of casualty to hospital 90 minutes. That means that in case of accident, one would drive from Kampala to Jinja on a taxi, before casualties are evacuated.

Secondly, the reporting procedure appears to have focused on the driver involved in the accident reporting it. In this case, both casualties were unable to do that.

The instructions: “If a driver taking part in a rally is involved in an accident in which a member of the public sustains physical injury, the driver concerned must report this to the next safety point … the crew involved in the accident must report to the Safety Delegate & Public Safety.”

The safety plans involved the police, fire crews, medical teams, and a communications network linking all key points and personnel at all times.

The rally HQ was supposed to be in “position to effect immediate and effective response to any high-risk emergency situation” with the FMU Safety Delegate and the Chief Safety Officer as the focal points. These were to be available at all times. But apparently, the list of organisers provided did not show a chief safety officer.It is unclear if the FMU Safety Delegate to Uganda, Hamid Gombe, is a medical officer. He was supposed to have coordinated several Safety Overseers, two fully equipped ambulances, and a field Medical Tent.

Wavamuno says the information previewed to him is different.

“I personally went to the scene although I was not the first. The first car to get to the scene was an ambulance and it got there 20 minutes after the accident. It was only 3kms from the scene,” he said.

It is also alleged that the communication between the organisers, the stewards and the rally driver during the event was by mobile phones and not radio call. Some of the organisers were seen with walkie-talkies but they did not use them. This is contrary to FIA regulations, the organisation that oversees motorsport worldwide. It is also alleged that the first group of organisers at the scene were South Africans.

Wavamuno says the rally organisers did not have air support to monitor the rally or evacuate any injured persons in case of an accident because they did not think they needed a helicopter.

Results of a postmortem were not revealed and in a speech at his burial, his co-driver Sayed Kadri, told mourners that Kurji died instantly.

Whatever caused the accident, Kurji is dead and buried. But for the safety of future rally events, organisers of the KCB Pearl of Africa Rally 2009 might want to investigate whether a more efficient response to the accident might not have saved Kurji’s life.

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